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Credits, notional hours and workload CPL Shop 



DETERMINING WORKLOAD IN RELATION TO CREDITS AND NOTIONAL HOURS 

As part of our planning for a module, we have to calculate workload in relation to credits and 
notional hours. 

Credits and notional hours 

The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) introduced the concept of credits related 
to 'notional hours' as part of a system of outcomes-based education (OBE). SAQA equates 
one credit with ten notional hours of learning. Notional hours are defined in terms of the 
amount of time it takes for the average student to achieve the learning outcomes. For contact 
institutions, the rule of thumb is two hours of time outside the classroom for every hour in the 
classroom when calculating notional hours. So, for a twelve-credit module the notional hours 
would be 120 and the amount of contact time would be 40 hours. If we use twelve-credit 
modules in distance education, how do we allocate the 120 notional hours? We shall look at 
the answer to this question in some detail. 

One interesting aspect of notional hours is that the concept looks at workload from the 
students' perspective. We do not look at how much content we would like to teach but at how 
much time it takes the average student to achieve deep learning of the knowledge, skills, 
attitudes and values that are embodied in a particular module. 

SAQA's formulation acknowledges that it is impossible to treat all students equally, hence 
the concept of the 'average student'. Students vary in innate abilities, background, 
educational achievements, etc. Each student will thus spend a different amount of time on a 
module but should be encouraged to move at a pace that meets the lecturer's expectations of 
the amount of work that should be completed by a certain stage of the module. 

Practical work and service learning may increase the amount of time spent on a module but, 
as students are assessed during these sessions, the other types of assessment could be reduced 
to balance the situation. 

Using clearly stated outcomes or competencies and calculating notional hours in relation to 
them is international good practice from Australia to India to the United States to the new 
European Union initiative (Tuning Educational Structures in Europe) in determining 
workload. 

When working in a semester system we have to plan and estimate differently from when we 
are working in a year system. We have to ask ourselves if the average student really spends 
120 notional hours on a twelve-credit module in a semester system if the way we plan the 
learning facilitation and assessment do not oblige him/ her to do so. 

The steps in estimating workload for a twelve-credit module of 120 notional hours 
STEP 1 

Calculate the number of weeks students will have available and the number of hours per 
week that would entail for a twelve-credit module with 120 notional hours of work for the 
average student. For the first semester, for instance, a student might only enrol on the last day 
of registration and therefore have about twelve weeks for a twelve-credit module. That means 



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Credits, notional hours and workload CPL Shop 

a commitment of ten hours a week for a 120 credit module between the beginning of 
February and the end of April. In a year model, students might have 32 weeks (February to 
September inclusive) and therefore would have to work 3.75 hours a week. 



STEP 2 

List all possible activities: reading, tasks/ activities, listening, viewing, tutorials, satellite, 
videoconferencing, group discussions, service learning, assignments, peer collaborative 
learning, interviews with counselors for study or career guidance, online forums, etc. This 
can be done for each study unit for the purposes of developmental testing and in-text 
guidance of students, and for the module as a whole. 



STEP 3 

Calculate the reading load of guides, assignments, tutorial letters, textbooks, recommended 
reading. Here we have a number of benchmarks from research. 

• Unisa research (Pretorius and Ribbens 2005; Matjila and Pretorius 2004; Pretorius 
and Bohlmann 2003) suggests that the average first-year student, from a background 
where reading was neglected, might be able to read fairly easy material at about 100 
words per minute but with really low comprehension. This research also found that 
students coming from backgrounds where reading was promoted might be able to read 
twice as fast and comprehend two or three times more than the weak reader. (Note: 
Slower reading times do not imply improved comprehension; the reverse is actually 
true.) There are tools on computers nowadays to assess the readability of a text. Let us 
say that a Unisa study guide, carefully planned, written in Plain English, with clear 
illustrations and examples, and well-edited, was rated as easy reading for a first-year 
student. (We have to be careful here as the Unisa research shows that students could 
have the reading ability of twelve-year olds, not eighteen-year olds.) If we take 100 
words per minute as a benchmark for easy texts, and 500 words per A4 page of text 
uninterrupted by diagrams or activities in a study guide, that would mean that the 
average student could read a page in five minutes and fifteen pages in an hour. Of 
course, the Unisa research indicates that they would only understand about a quarter 
of what they were reading. Also consider students' metacognitive abilities. An 
inexperienced student will keep on reading regardless of whether he or she 
understands. An expert learner will stop, re-read, try to map the text, try to find topic 
sentences, flag issues or contact a lecturer. 

• The 1992 research from Indira Ghandi National Open University (IGNOU) gives the 
following benchmarks for 'study rate times' which include reading, rereading and 
note-taking (for fairly unskilled readers): 

o Easy: 100 words per minute 

o Fairly straightforward: 70 words per minute 

o A dense/ difficult text: 40 words per minute 
The research was conducted on Physics students and the benchmarks were reduced as 
follows for Physics texts: 

o Easy: 60 words per minute 

o Fairly straightforward: 40 words per minute 

o A dense/ difficult text: 25 words per minute 

o Difficult mathematical equation/ step: 1 minute per equation. 



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• The Central Queensland University estimates that 'a reasonable study rate ranges 
from less than 5 pages per hour for conceptually difficult text to about 10 pages an 
hour for reasonable text' (Nouwens 1997). 

• Welch (1998) also gives data from the UK including the Open University (OU), that 
range from 8 to 20 pages an hour. In the UK most students probably have English as 
their primary language and that has to be factored into the higher reading speeds. 

Based on this information, let us use five to ten pages an hour as a norm and 7.5 pages as the 
average for a first-year student, for whom English is not a primary language, studying a 
reading text with comprehension - reading and re-reading, and taking notes. It is then a 
question of looking at the number of pages in the guide and the textbook that are 
predominantly text and calculating the number of notional hours students would need to read 
those texts with comprehension. The number of words per page might differ for the study 
guide and the textbook. Do a quick calculation for each, using a page that contains mainly 
text. The time to understand complex diagrams that take up space and require additional 
processing can be calculated separately, as can the time to work on equations or other 
calculations. 

Tool for calculating the workload for a module of twelve credits or 120 notional hours 



What follows is a list of (potential) activities for a module (assuming 90% of students 
are using English as additional language). 



Activities 


Estimated 
student time in 
hours 


Reading and comprehending study guide of 200 pages, including note- 
taking (at five to ten pages an hour; average of 7.5) 


27 


Reading and comprehending textbook of 200 pages, including note-taking 
(average of 7.5 pages an hour) 


27 


Reading and comprehending Tutorial Letter 101 of 50 pages (average of 
7.5 pages an hour) 


7 


Completing activities in guide and reading feedback 


20 


Completing self-assessment in guide and reading feedback 


4 


Attending tutorials/ group visits/ satellite broadcasts/ videoconferences at 
learning centre (preparation and attendance) (Nadeosa benchmark: 10% of 
notional hours for contact) 


(12) 


Completing four assignments (five hours to produce 200 words, half on 
reading): (Nadeosa benchmark 15% of notional hours on formative 
assessment = eighteen hours) 

• Reading 

• Drafting and revision 

• Writing/ typing final copy 


20 


Reading and comprehending other tutorial letters 


8 


Listening to tape 


(1) 


Viewing a video 


(1) 


Participating in three online discussion forums (four substantial 
contributions per forum = two hours per forum plus reading others' 
contributions = two hours per forum ■ total of twelve) 


(12) 



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Peer collaborative learning 


(5) 


Study/ career counselling 


(1) 


Practical/ laboratory work/ service learning 


(12) 


Revision 


5 


Examination 


2 


TOTAL 


120 




(164) 



Based on this estimate, the module is overloaded in terms of input from text so that a 
blended approach that includes multimedia and student support activities becomes 
impossible. There are activities and formative assessment opportunities, which is 
good, but the module caters only for the independent student who learns well from 
text. Students who learn better from interaction, practical opportunities or audio- 
visual media are disadvantaged. 



STEP 4 

Calculate the load of other activities. This can be done per study unit and then added up for 
the whole module. Nothing should remain hidden. Do not calculate all the tutorial letters as 
reading, for instance, if the final tutorial letter contains a mock examination paper that will 
take a student two hours to complete. Tutorials at learning centres may be optional but some 
students will enrol. The same applies to group visits. You also need to consider that students 
(hopefully) spend time preparing for contact sessions and that time has to be added. 

Tool for estimating workload per study unit and conducting developmental testing 

What follows is a list of activities for a single study unit of seventeen pages in a guide 
of 302 pages. Students also have to consult language reference books and the time is 
calculated into the list below. The module includes a tape with listening integrated 
into some study units but not the one used here. Tutors are also available at all 
learning centres for those who choose to use this service. 



Actvities 


Estimated 
student time in 
minutes 


Reading and comprehending of seventeen pages at 7.5 pages in 60 minutes 


136 


Vocabulary study: 24 new words - writing own word list 


24 


Activity 1 : writing 


30 


Activity 2: answering three questions 


10 


Activity 3: ticking a checklist 


2 


Activity 4: answering twenty multiple-choice comprehension questions 


20 


Reading checklist 


2 


Writing checklist 


2 


Studying an annotated text 


5 


Activity 5: Letter to the press 


60 


Consulting grammar reference book 


30 


Activity 6: grammar exercise 


10 


Reflection on unit 


10 



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TOTAL 341 
(5.68 hours) 

If all the study units are this labour intensive, students will need to devote 100 hours 
just to the study guide and its activities. The course also has four compulsory 
assignments (eighteen hours if calculated as 15% of total hours) and a two hour 
examination, which would complete the 120 notional hours for the average student. 
Students attending tutorials would be adding significantly to the time spent on the 
module, probably about 30 hours (one hour of preparation plus one hour of contact for 
fifteen classes). 



STEP 5 

Undertake developmental testing. The tool for estimating workload per study unit is the 
document that you need to use while conducting developmental testing with students. 
Freeman (2005:169) states that most ODL institutions use ten to twenty-five students with 
more in-depth responses from five to ten. He pointed out in a workshop at Unisa in early 
2005 that new research is showing that five students would give sufficient data as after that 
the responses tend to become repetitive. Study units can be sent out to students or the lecturer 
can sit with each student as he or she works through the study unit. The latter approach has 
the advantage that the lecturer can note if a student skips activities or needs to resort to a 
dictionary, etc. The lecturer can use a think-aloud protocol, with the student commenting on 
difficulty level, etc. and ask questions as necessary. The student needs to know that the 
purpose is to test the material not him or her. 



References 

Freeman, M. 2005. Draft: Creating learning materials for open and distance learning: a handbook for authors 
and instructional designers. To be published by The Commonwealth of Learning. 

Garg, S., Panda, V. & Panda, S. 1992. A preliminary study of student workload for IGNOU Physics elective 
courses. In: Indian Journal of Open Learning, 1(2): 19-25. 

Matjila, DS & Pretorius, E.J. 2004. Bilingual and biliterate? An exploratory study of Grade 8 reading skills in 
Setswana and English. Per Linguam 20(1): 1-21. .„„-,./ s - ... 

Nouwens, F. 1997. Student workload. Cited in S. Dixon, G. Lefoe, F. Nouwens and S. Wills (eds) Teaching at a 
distance [CD-ROM]. PAGE: Melbourne. 

Pretorius, E.J. & Bohlmann, C.A. 2003. A reading intervention programme for Mathematics students. Houth 
African Journal of Higher Education 17(2): 226-235. 

Pretorius, E.J. & Ribbens, I.R. 2005. Reading in a disadvantaged high school: Issues of accomplishment, 
assessment and accountability. South African Journal of Education. 25(3): 139- 147. 

Welch, T. 1998. A step-by-step approach to estimating learner workload on a distance education programme. In: 
Open Learning through Distance Education, 4(3): 18-21. 



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